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Nuclear Narratives

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On September 27, 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a presentation at the United Nations about Iranian nuclear capabilities. It featured a simplistic, cartoon-like drawing of a bomb and a hand-drawn “red line,” indicating that Iran’s accumulation of enriched nuclear material in excess of the amount represented by the red line would constitute justification for a military attack on Iran. Netanyahu did not mention any other option.

The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the presentation focused on the differing official opinions about Netanyahu’s claim that “the international community needed to be prepared to attack no later than summer of 2013 to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.” The New York Times coverage of the event focused on how Netanyahu’s deadline represented a “softening” of the Israeli position as part of a “difficult dispute with the Obama administration.” Britain’s Financial Times focused on divining Netanyahu’s motivation for the speech: “[The address] was a highly public argument for a stronger U.S. threat to attack Iran if it does not back off from what the Israeli leader described as the final push toward a nuclear weapon.”

Absent from much of the news coverage of Netanyahu’s presentation was a thorough evaluation of Iran’s actual nuclear capabilities, or of the full range of options available to policy makers. The news coverage made it seem as if the only choice facing the international community was when to threaten to attack Iran’s nuclear program, and what Iran needed to do to avoid being attacked.

The media coverage was representative of larger patterns we found in a study of the way in which six leading newspapers in the United States and Britain have framed events related to Iran’s nuclear program over the past four years. Rather than thoroughly exploring Iranian intentions and capabilities—and the factors affecting security strategy on all sides—much of the news coverage has focused on the political and diplomatic back and forth between government officials, particularly on what different American, European, and Israeli officials say and, more briefly, what Iranian officials say back.

Rather than asking why officials say what they say, and how best to settle the dispute on terms acceptable to all, news coverage—and as a consequence, public discussion—has been caught in a constrained and distorted narrative of how Iran threatens global security and how best to coerce it to stop. It is a narrative that has only a passing resemblance to the complex contours of the dispute, but one that holds vast and potentially dire consequences.

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